Belgium paves way to send convicted terrorist to Iran

There is growing international pressure not to back treaty that would allow Iranians convicted in Belgium to serve their sentences in Iran.

Belgium’s parliament on Tuesday will debate whether to ratify a proposed treaty with Iran that could allow an Iranian convicted of terrorism in Belgium to be sent back to Tehran.

Iran has loudly demanded that Belgium release Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat who was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in a bomb plot targeting a rally by opponents of the Iranian regime in France.

The Belgian government has refused to explain the immediate need for the treaty, although Belgian media reported Monday night that Iran has been holding a Belgian national in jail since February, potentially as leverage.

The treaty could also pave the way for a future political deal on Ahmadreza Djalali, who was sentenced to death by an Iranian court in 2017 on charges of spying for Israel. Djalali, a former researcher at the medical university Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and a guest lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), denies the charges. Belgium and Sweden have lobbied for his release for years. However, he would not immediately be covered by the treaty, as he doesn’t have Belgian nationality.

Several Western citizens are detained in Iran on spurious charges. These cases have long represented one of the most difficult challenges in the problematic relationship between European nations and Iran. Earlier this year, for example, the U.K. settled a debt to Iran dating back to the 1970s — effectively paying a £400 million ransom — to free two British-Iranian nationals.

The move by Belgium, however, which envisions the release of a terrorist convicted in the Belgian courts of attempting mass murder on European soil, is proving far more controversial — drawing outrage from European critics of Iran, as well as members of the Iranian opposition living in exile.

While the treaty has been in development for many months, the action in the Belgium parliament comes as European leaders are panicking over energy prices and are increasingly eager to repair relations with Iran in the hope that the Islamic Republic can resume its role as a major supplier of oil and gas.

Doing so would require resolving continuing disagreements with the United States over the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which will not be easy. But with EU countries intent on cutting off Russian energy supplies, Iran is seen as one of the few alternative sources.

The new treaty between Belgium and Iran was signed in March and is now being pushed through parliament at speed, with legislative leaders aiming to have it ratified before the parliamentary summer break. The treaty would permit Iranians convicted in Belgium to serve their sentences in Iran, with the same happening for Belgians convicted in Iran. But the treaty also allows each party to grant amnesty and there is little doubt that Assadi, who worked as an Iranian diplomat, would quickly be set free.

Get-out-of-jail-free card

Critics of the new treaty say that it will undermine the Belgian law enforcement and justice systems, literally creating a get-out-of-jail-free card for terrorists.

“This is an erosion of the legal system,” said Michael Freilich, a Belgian MP for the Flemish nationalists N-VA, who are in opposition in the Belgian parliament. “Iran has made clear publicly that they don’t see Assadi as a terrorist, but as a diplomat. He will be freed as soon as he steps foot on Iranian soil.”

“Our country is signing a treaty with a terrorist state purely for the purpose of extraditing terrorists to Iran,” said Rik Vanreusel, a lawyer representing the Iranian opposition. “Iran has a clear policy of taking foreigners hostage as leverage. This new law institutionalizes this kind of behavior via a legal framework.”

Amnesty International has also previously warned Iran was holding Djalali hostage to compel Belgium and Sweden to hand over former Iranian officials, including Assadi.

When asked for comment, the Belgian foreign affairs ministry referred questions to the office of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who is also serving temporarily as foreign affairs minister. De Croo’s office referred questions to Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne.

A spokesperson for Van Quickenborne insisted that the treaty was not tied to any specific case. “There is no link with any individual file,” the spokesperson said, adding that the vote in parliament was not just about the treaty with Iran, but also about treaties with India and the United Arab Emirates, which would help extradite criminals in the drug trade.

When asked about the treaty in the Belgian parliament last Thursday, Van Quickenborne also pointed out a need to protect Belgians who might be detained by foreign regimes. “This is how we ensure that criminals cannot hide in other countries, because impunity is not an option. At the same time, however, we also want to protect our compatriots worldwide, hence the international agreement,” Van Quickenborne said.

In recent days, there has been mounting global condemnation of the planned new treaty.

Nine former senior members of the U.S. law enforcement and national security community sent a letter to the Belgian parliament urging against ratification.

“This pending treaty is totally disrespectful to the law enforcement officers who risked their lives to prevent the 2018 attack,” the letter, seen by POLITICO, stated. “It also frustrates the judicial system’s ability to fulfill its mission to protect the citizens of Europe by denying it the ability to make perpetrators accountable.”

The authors, who include former FBI Director Louis Freeh and an array of former U.S. military commanders, warned that the treaty would effectively establish Belgium as a “sanctuary country” for terrorist operations, and a safe haven for Iranian intelligence services to maintain a European central command center.

Three Republican U.S. congressmen — Randy K. Weber and Louie Gohmert of Texas, and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — have also written a letter to De Croo urging him to oppose the treaty. In the letter, the three U.S. lawmakers praised Belgian authorities for “preventing a heinous tragedy” by foiling Assadi’s “dastardly plot,” which they noted was carried out under the “ploy of diplomatic immunity.”

Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, an Iranian opposition group based in Paris, said there was no doubt about the purpose of the treaty.

“This legislation sets the stage for the transfer of a convicted terrorist, Assadollah Assadi, the Iranian regime’s ‘diplomat’ to Iran,” Gobadi said in a statement to POLITICO. “This disgraceful deal compromises the safety and security of Europeans including the Belgian people and rolls the red carpet for the Iranian regime and its terror apparatus. The message to the Iranian regime would be very clear: you can perpetrate mass terrorism in Europe by using your ‘diplomats’ and ’embassies’ and commit the worst crimes in Europe and get away with it. It is imperative for the Belgium Parliament to reject this agreement and prevent the sacred principles of Europe from being subjected to such dirty deals.”

Some Belgian critics of the treaty said there had been a marked change of tone from the Belgian government in the last couple of months, as Van Quickenborne in February had said he wanted to avoid “horse-trading” on a prisoner swap. That raised the possibility that Belgium was coming under pressure from other European capitals, including Paris, which are eager to ease tensions with Tehran.

Several Belgian diplomats contacted by POLITICO said they were not authorized to speak about the case or that it was above their pay grade. However, diplomats stressed that freeing Djalali, or at least setting aside the death penalty for a more lenient sentence, has long been a priority for the Belgian government.

Freilich also pointed to Benjamin Brière, a French national who has been sentenced in Iran for espionage and propaganda, and suggested that he might be part of a prisoner exchange, with Djalali alone not being sufficient to get Belgium to release Assadi. “But honestly, we don’t know,” Freilich said. “It’s very sneaky. If the Belgian government really feels that such a deal should be done, it should be transparent about it.”

One Belgian politician said there has been “large diplomatic pressure, in particular from France.”

But some senior leaders strongly defended the efforts to re-engage with Iran and further isolate Russia in the context of its war with Ukraine. Speaking at a news conference at the G7 summit in Germany, European Council President Charles Michel, a former Belgian prime minister, said the EU had consistently supported the Iran nuclear deal, and should do everything possible to revive it.

“Even if it is extremely difficult … even we know what’s the role played by Iran in the regional context,” Michel said, “we think that the EU has responsibility to engage with all the actors with all the partners there to see if … agreements with Iran are possible.”

The treaty will first be discussed on Tuesday by the foreign affairs committee. Once it gets the green light there, which could be within hours, it will go to the full parliament, possibly later this week. But given the increasing pressure and the growing media attention the treaty is getting in Belgium, some Belgian politicians said it isn’t a done deal yet.

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